Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Thus Captain Elisha entered another of New York's "circles," that which centered at Mrs. Hepton's boarding house. Within a week he was as much a part of it as if he had lived there for years. At lunch, on the day of his arrival, he made his appearance at the table in company with Pearson, and when the landlady exultantly announced that he was to be "one of our little party" thereafter, he received and replied to the welcoming salutations of his fellow boarders with unruffled serenity.
"How could I help it?" he asked. "Human nature's liable to temptation, they tell us. The flavor of that luncheon we had last time I was here has been hangin' 'round the edges of my mouth and tantalizin' my memory ever since."
"We had a souffle that noon, if I remember correctly, Captain," observed the flattered Mrs. Hepton.
"Did you? Well, I declare! I'd have sworn 'twas a biled-dinner hash. Knew 'twas better than any I ever ate afore, but I'd have bet 'twas hash, just the same. Tut! tut! tut! Now, honest, Mrs. Hepton, ain't this--er--whatever-you-call-it a close relation--a sort of hash with its city clothes on, hey?"
The landlady admitted that a souffle was something not unlike a hash. Captain Elisha nodded.
"I thought so," he declared. "I was sartin sure I couldn't be mistaken. What is it used to be in the song book? 'You can smash--you can--' Well, I don't remember. Somethin' about your bein' able to smash the vase if you wanted to, but the smell of the posies was there yet."
Mr. Ludlow, the bookseller, supplied the quotation.
"'You may break, you may shatter The vase if you will, But the scent of the roses Will cling to it still,'
he said, smiling.
"That's it. Much obliged. You can warm up and rechristen the hash if you will; but the corned beef and cabbage stay right on deck. Ain't that so, Mr. Dickens?"
The illustrious "C." bowed.
"Moore?" he observed, with dignity.
"Yes. That's what I said--'More!' Said it twice, I believe. Glad you agree with me. The hymn says that weakness is sin, but there's no sin in havin' a weakness for corned-beef hash."
Miss Sherborne and Mrs. Van Winkle Ruggles were at first inclined to snub the new boarder, considering him a country boor whose presence in their select society was almost an insult. The captain did not seem to notice their hints or sneers, although Pearson grew red and wrathful.
"Laura, my dear," said Mrs. Ruggles, addressing the teacher of vocal culture, "don't you feel quite rural today? Almost as if you were visiting the country?"
"I do, indeed," replied Miss Sherborne. "Refreshing, isn't it? Ha! ha!"
"It is if one cares for such things. I am afraid I don't appreciate them. They may be well enough in their place, but--"
She finished with a shrug of her shoulders. Captain Elisha smiled.
"Yes, ma'am," he said politely, joining in the conversation; "that's what the boy said about the cooky crumbs in the bed. You don't care for the country, I take it, ma'am."
"I do not!"
"So? Well, it's a mercy we don't think alike; even Heaven would be crowded if we did--hey? You didn't come from the country, either?" turning to Miss Sherborne.
The young lady would have liked to answer with an uncompromising negative. Truth and the fact that some of those present were acquainted with it compelled her to forego this pleasure.
"I was born in a--a small town," she answered coldly. "But I came to the city as soon as I possibly could."
"Um-hm. Well, I came when I couldn't possibly stay away. We can agree on one thing--we're all here. Yes, and on another--that that cake is fust-rate. I'll take a second piece, if you've no objection, Mrs. Hepton."
When they were alone once more, in the captain's room, Pearson vented his indignation.
"Why didn't you give them as good as they sent?" he demanded. "Couldn't you see they were doing their best to hurt your feelings?"
"Ya-as. I could see it. Didn't need any specs to see that."
"Then why didn't you answer them as they deserved?"
"Oh, I don't know. What's the use? They've got troubles of their own. One of 'em's a used-to-be, and the other's a never-was. Either disease is bad enough without addin' complications."
Pearson laughed. "I don't get the whole of that, Captain," he said. "Mrs. Van is the used-to-be, I suppose. But what is it that Miss Sherborne never was?"
"Married," was the prompt reply. "Old maiditis is creepin' on her fast. You want to be careful, Jim; a certain kind of female gets desperate about her stage."
Pearson laughed again.
"Oh, get out!" he exclaimed, turning to go.
"All right! I will, when you and she are together and you give me the signal. But I tell you honest, I'd hate to do it. Judgin' by the way she smiles and looks up under her eye-winkers at you, you're in danger of kidnappin'. So long. I'll see you again after I get my dunnage unpacked."
The snubbing and sneering came to an abrupt end. Pearson, in conversation with Mrs. Ruggles, casually imparted the information that Captain Elisha was the brother of A. Rodgers Warren, late society leader and wealthy broker. Also, that he had entire charge of the latter's estate. Thereafter Mrs. Ruggles treated the captain as one whose rank was equal to her own, and, consequently, higher than anyone's else in the boarding-house. She made it a point to publicly ask his advice concerning "securities" and "investments," and favored him with many reminiscences of her distinguished father, the Senator. Miss Sherborne, as usual, followed her lead. Captain Elisha, when Pearson joked him on the altered behavior of the two ladies, merely grinned.
"You may thank me for that, Captain," said the young man. "When I told Mrs. Ruggles who and what you were she almost broke down and sobbed. The fact that she had risked offending one so closely connected with the real thing on Fifth Avenue and Wall Street was too dreadful. But she's yours devotedly now. There's an 18-karat crown on your head."
"Yup. I suppose so. Well, I ain't so sot up with pride over wearin' that crown. It used to belong to 'Bije, and I never did care much for second-hand things. Rather have a new sou'wester of my own, any day in the week. When I buy a sou'wester I know what it's made of."
"Mrs. Ruggles knows what the crown is made of--gold, nicely padded with bonds and preferred stock."
"Humph! Sometimes I wonder if the paddin's waterproof. As for the gold--well, you can make consider'ble shine with brass when you're dealin' with nigh-sighted folks... and children."
To this indirect reference to Miss Warren and her brother Pearson made no reply. The pair conversed freely on other subjects, but each avoided this one. The novel, too, was laid on the shelf for the present. Its author had not yet mustered sufficient courage to return to it. Captain Elisha once or twice suggested a session with "Cap'n Jim," but, finding his suggestions received with more or less indifference, did not press them. His mind was busy with other things. A hint dropped by Sylvester, the lawyer, was one of these. It suggested alarming possibilities, and his skepticism concerning the intrinsic worth of his inherited "crown" was increased by it.
He paid frequent visits to the offices of Sylvester, Kuhn, and Graves in Pine Street. Upon the senior partner, whom he esteemed and trusted not only as a business adviser but a friend, he depended for information concerning happenings at the Warren apartment.
Caroline sent him regular statements of her weekly expenditures, also bills for his approval, but she had written him but once, and then only a brief note. The note brought by a messenger, accompanied a package containing the chain which he and Pearson selected with such deliberation and care at the Fifth Avenue jeweler's. Under the existing circumstances, the girl wrote, she felt that she did not wish to accept presents from him and therefore returned this one. He was alone when the note and package came and sat by the window of his room, looking out at the dismal prospect of back yards and clothes-lines, turning the leather case over and over in his hands. Perhaps this was the most miserable afternoon he had spent since his arrival in the city. He tried to comfort himself by the exercise of his usual philosophy, but it was cold comfort. He had no right to expect gratitude, so he told himself, and the girl undoubtedly felt that she was justified in her treatment of him; but it is hard to be misunderstood and misjudged, even by one whose youth is, perhaps, an excuse. He forgave Caroline, but he could not forgive those who were responsible for her action.
After Pearson had departed, on the morning when the conversation dealing with Mrs. Van Winkle Ruggles and her change of attitude took place, Captain Elisha put on his hat and coat and started for his lawyer's office. Sylvester was glad to see him and invited him to lunch.
"No, thank you," replied the captain. "I just run down to ask if there was anything new in the offin'. Last time I see you, you hinted you and your mates had sighted somethin' or other through the fog, and it might turn out to be a rock or a lighthouse, you couldn't tell which. Made up your mind yet?"
Sylvester shook his head. "No," he said, slowly; "it is still foggy. We're busy investigating, but we're not ready to report."
"Humph! Well, what's the thing look like? You must be a little nigher to it by now."
The lawyer tapped his desk with a pencil. "I don't know what it looks like," he answered. "That is to say, I don't--I can't believe it is what it appears, at this distance, to be. If it is, it is the most--"
He paused. Captain Elisha waited for him to go on and, when he did not do so, asked another question.
"The most what?" he demanded. "Is it likely to be very bad?"
"Why--why--well, I can't say even that yet. But there! as I told you, I'm not going to permit it to worry me. And you mustn't worry, either. That's why I don't give you any further particulars. There may be nothing in it, after all."
His visitor smiled. "Say, Mr. Sylvester," he said, "you're like the young-ones used to be when I was a boy. There'd be a gang of 'em waitin' by the schoolhouse steps and when the particular victim hove in sight they'd hail him with, 'Ah, ha! you're goin' to get it!' 'Wait till teacher sees you!' and so on. Course the victim would want to know what it meant. All the satisfaction he got from them was, 'That's all right! You'll find out! You just wait!' And the poor feller put in the time afore the bell rung goin' over all the things he shouldn't have done and had, and wonderin' which it was this time. You hinted to me a week ago that there was a surprisin' possibility loomin' up in 'Bije's financial affairs. And ever since then I've been puzzlin' my brains tryin' to guess what could happen. Ain't discovered any more of those Cut Short bonds, have you?"
The bonds to which he referred were those of a defunct Short Line railroad. A large number of these bonds had been discovered among A. Rodgers Warren's effects; part of his "tangled assets," the captain had termed them, differentiating from the "tangible" variety.
"Abbie, my housekeeper, has been writin' me," he went on, "about havin' the sewin' room papered. She wants my advice concernin' the style of paper; says it ought to be pretty and out of the common, but not too expensive. I judge what she wants is somethin' that looks like money but ain't really wuth more than ten cents a mile. I've been thinkin' I'd send her a bale or so of those bonds; they'd fill the bill in those respects, wouldn't they?"
Sylvester laughed. "They certainly would, Captain," he replied. "No, we haven't unearthed any more of that sort. And, as for this mystery of ours, I'll give you the answer--if it's worth giving at all, in a very short time. Meanwhile, you go home and forget it."
"Well, I'll try. But I guess it sticks out on my face, like a four days' toothache. But I won't worry about that. You know best whether to tell me now or not, and--well, I'm carryin' about all the worry my tonnage'll stand, as 'tis."
He drew a long breath. Sylvester regarded him sympathetically.
"You mustn't take your nephew's and niece's treatment too much to heart," he said.
"Oh, I don't. That is, I pretend I don't. And I do try not to. But I keep thinkin', thinkin', and wonderin' if 'twould have been better if I hadn't gone there to live at all. Hi hum! a man of my age hadn't ought to mind what a twenty-year-old girl says, or does; 'specially when her kind, advisin' friends have shown her how she's been deceived and hypocrit-ted. By the way, speakin' of hypocrites, I suppose there's just as much 'Dunnin'' as ever goin' on up there?"
"Yes. A little more, if anything, I'm afraid. Your niece and Mrs. Dunn and her precious son are together now so constantly that people are expecting--well, you know what they expect."
"I can guess. I hope they'll be disapp'inted."
"So do I, but I must confess I'm fearful. Malcolm himself isn't so wise, but his mother is--"
"A whole Book of Proverbs, hey? I know. She's an able old frigate. I did think I had her guns spiked, but she turned 'em on me unexpected. I thought I had her and her boy in a clove hitch. I knew somethin' that I was sartin sure they wouldn't want Caroline to know, and she and Malcolm knew I knew it. Her tellin' Caroline of it, her story of it, when I wasn't there to contradict, was as smart a piece of maneuverin' as ever was. It took the wind out of my sails, because, though I'm just as right as I ever was, Caroline wouldn't listen to me, nor believe me, now."
"She'll learn by experience."
"Yup. But learnin' by experience is a good deal like shippin' green afore the mast; it'll make an able seaman of you, if it don't kill you fust. When I was a boy there was a man in our town name of Nickerson Cummin's. He was mate of a ship and smart as a red pepper poultice on a skinned heel. He was a great churchgoer when he was ashore and always preachin' brotherly love and kindness and pattin' us little shavers on the head, and so on. Most of the grown folks thought he was a sort of saint, and I thought he was more than that. I'd have worshiped him, I cal'late, if my Methodist trainin' would have allowed me to worship anybody who wa'n't named in Scriptur'. If there'd been an apostle or a prophet christened Nickerson I'd have fell on my knees to this Cummin's man, sure. So, when I went to sea as a cabin boy, a tow-headed snub-nosed little chap of fourteen, I was as happy as a clam at highwater 'cause I was goin' in the ship he was mate of."
He paused. There was a frown on his face, and his lower jaw was thrust forward grimly.
"Well?" inquired Sylvester. "What happened?"
"Hey? Oh, excuse me. When I get to thinkin' of that v'yage I simmer inside, like a teakettle on a hot stove. The second day out--seasick and homesick and so miserable I wished I could die all at once instead of by lingerin' spasms--I dropped a dish on the cabin floor and broke it. Cummin's was alone with me, eatin' his dinner; and he jumped out of his chair when I stooped to pick up the pieces and kicked me under the table. When I crawled out, he kicked me again and kept it up. When his foot got tired he used his fist. 'There!' says he between his teeth, 'I cal'late that'll learn you that crockery costs money.'
"It did. I never broke anything else aboard that ship. Cummin's was a bully and a sneak to everybody but the old man, and a toady to him. He never struck me or anybody else when the skipper was around, but there was nothin' too mean for him to do when he thought he had a safe chance. And he took pains to let me know that if I ever told a soul at home he'd kill me. I'd learned by experience, not only about the price of crockery, but other things, things that a youngster ought not to learn--how to hate a man so that you can wait years to get even with him, for one. I'm sorry I learned that, and," dryly, "so was Cummin's, later. But I did learn, once and for all, not to take folks on trust, nor to size 'em up by their outside, or the noise they make in prayer-meetin', nor the way they can spread soft soap when they think it's necessary. I'd learned that, and I'd learned it early enough to be of use to me, which was a mercy.
"It was a hard lesson for me," he added, reflectively; "but I managed to come out of it without lettin' it bitter my whole life. I don't mind so much Caroline's bein' down on me. She'll know better some day, I hope; and if she don't--well, I'm only a side-issue in her life, anyhow, hove in by accident, like the section of dog collar in the sassage. But I do hope her learnin' by experience won't come too late to save her from... what she'll be awful sorry for by and by."
"It must," declared the lawyer, with decision. "You must see to it, Captain Warren. You are her guardian. She is absolutely under your charge. She can do nothing of importance unless you consent."
"Yup. That's so--for one more year; just one, remember! Then she'll be of age, and I can't say 'Boo!' And her share of 'Bije's money'll be hers, too. And don't you believe that that fact has slipped Sister Dunn's memory. I ain't on deck to head her off now; if she puts Malcolm up to gettin' Caroline to give her word, and Caroline gives it--well, I know my niece. She's honorable, and she'll stick to her promise if it runs her on the rocks. And Her Majesty Dunn knows that, too. Therefore, the cat bein' away, she cal'lates now's the time to make sure of the cheese."
"But the cat can come back. The song says it did, you know."
"Um-hm. And got another kick, I shouldn't wonder. However, my claws'll stay sharp for a year or thereabouts, and, if it comes to a shindy, there'll be some tall scratchin' afore I climb a tree. Keep a weather eye on what goes on, won't you?"
"I will. You can depend on me."
"I do. And say! for goodness' sakes put me out of my misery regardin' that rock or lighthouse on 'Bije's chart, soon's ever you settle which it is."
"Certainly! And, remember, don't worry. It may be a lighthouse, or nothing at all. At all events, I'll report very soon."